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Saturday, November 4, 2017

The Lost Heir, Episode 3: A Door Under the Water





The Lost Heir, Episode 3: A Door Under the Water






          Kelden, despite being in excellent physical condition, found it difficult to keep up with the islander as the man bounded down the mountain slope, chattering all the while about some sink hole near the center of the island. Kelden did his best to avoid the low hanging branches around him, the image of the viper attacking a bird still fresh in his mind, but the nameless stranger kept running in a straight line, chastising Kelden for being unable to keep up with an old man.
          They ran for about an hour, crossing over a series of smaller hills as they made their way to the center of the island. The foliage became less dense as they moved into a large crater-like depression. The trees didn’t grow in this rocky part of the island, but there were still plenty of waist-high ferns and bushes. Vines stretched across the rocky ground and up over boulders, more than once giving Kelden a scare when he mistook them for large snakes.
          Then, all at once the bushes disappeared as well and there was a swath of green moss covering the ground. In the center, there was a large, dark hole that ran straight down. Kelden stopped and stared at the opening, wondering how such a cave might have come to be, and guessing as to what may be lurking inside.
          “Come on, it’s down here,” the man shouted as he gestured toward the sink hole.
          “How long until the tide rolls in?” Kelden asked. Swimming in the open waters was one thing, but the idea of water filling the tunnel with him still inside was quite another.
          “We have an hour, maybe a bit less,” the man replied quickly. “Come, come, we must hurry.”
          Kelden sighed and arched a brow as the mysterious hermit jumped down into the hole fearlessly. He then looked out toward the sea. He couldn’t see the water from this vantage point, but he knew he wasn’t very high above sea level at all. A rising tide would likely come in mush faster than he could climb out, especially if the tunnel went below sea level at any point, which he had a sneaking suspicion it did.
          “Come on!” the islander shouted with a double clap of his hands. “Surely you aren’t afraid of a little spelunking, are you?”
          Kelden moved to the edge of the hole and looked down. Several yards down he could see a pair of crabs fighting over something in the shaggy kelp that lay upon the rocks. Judging from the plants and the dark lines, the tide would fill the entire cavern nearly up to the place where Kelden stood. Still, the islander seemed more than impatient to get him down there. He hopped down, keeping one hand on the edge until he had his footing on the first ledge some four feet down. From there he followed the nameless stranger, stepping where he stepped and climbing where he climbed. The pungent smell of low tide assaulted his senses, nearly overpowering him. He held a hand up to his nose as the tunnel shot out in an easterly direction.
          “Watch out for this one,” the islander said as he pointed to a spined starfish. “If you try to touch it, it will sting you.”
          Kelden glanced at the creature and nodded. “Looks painful,” he said as he studied the barbed spines.
          “It isn’t the pain that gets you, it’s the poison they carry. Makes your muscles weak and nearly suffocates you.”
          Kelden blinked at the small creature. It wasn’t much larger than his hand, and the spines, although sharp, could only be a couple of inches long. It seemed unlikely that the starfish could move fast enough to inflict any sort of harm so long as one avoided grabbing the spines directly, but then, a rock-jumper was only a few inches long, and its evil bite had once nearly killed Kelden, so he figured he would take the islander’s word on this one.
          “Nearly killed me the first time,” the islander went on about the starfish. “I accidentally put my hand too close and it lashed out, cut my hand!” The man turned and pointed to the webbing between his thumb and forefinger. “I within a couple of minutes, I was barely able to even crawl. By the time the tide rolled in, I was nearly paralyzed. Only just made it out alive, using my fingers to hold myself against the cave wall as the water rose. I sort of dangled in the water like a soggy tea bag for an hour or two before the toxin finally wore off and I regained my strength.”
          “Doesn’t sound like fun,” Kelden said evenly.
          “I don’t kill the starfish though. They serve a fine purpose.”
          “What’s that?” Kelden asked.
          “They scare off other predators that would make this kind of place their home. So, I leave the starfish alone, and they protect the tunnel from the likes of sea-crocs, venomous sea-snakes, and a wobbergoblin.”
          “A what?” Kelden asked as he ducked his head to avoid hitting the ceiling of the cave.
          “I don’t know what their real name is. I see them sometimes, prowling the shores. They like to get into island pools and wait for unsuspecting prey to come near the water. They’re ugly as sin, like a cross between a giant saw-tooth gar and a goblin, so I call them wobbergoblins. They’re nearly as long as I am tall, and I have seen ‘em make a mess of sailors before.”
          “I’ve never heard of anything like them,” Kelden said.
          “Well, you have now. And, that’s why we leave the starfish. Even the wobbergoblins don’t mess with the starfish.”
          “I’ll keep that in mind.”
          The islander stopped and turned to the right. Kelden caught up with him and saw a puddle of water. The light from the tunnel entrance wasn’t enough at this point to fully illuminate the pool. To their left, the tunnel continued on in a gently sloping curve to the north.
          “Why are we stopping here?” Kelden asked.
          “This is where we have to go,” the islander said. He turned and eyed Kelden up and down, suddenly cocking his head and shrugging. “It’ll be a tight fit for you, big fella, but this is where we cross through.”
          “Cross through to what?” Kelden asked. “All I see is a puddle.”
          The islander shook his head. “It goes down about three feet, and then there is a small hole to squeeze through. It’s a long push though, so take a good breath. If you get stuck, don’t panic, just keep pushing with your legs and worm your way through. I’ll be on the other side.”
          “You can’t be serious,” Kelden said. The islander reached under his waistband and pulled up a small cloth sack. He opened it and produced a metal cube much like the one Kelden had. Kelden’s eyes shot open wide and he pointed at the object. “Where did you get that?”
          “Oh, I have a few things yet to show you,” the nameless stranger said with a teasing smile. “But to see them, you have to follow me to the other side.” The islander brought the cube up to his forehead and the object began to glow with a soft, violet light. Slowly, the islander put his hand into the puddle. “First, I check for starfish. If they are here, we’ll come back another time.”
          “Is your cube like mine?” Kelden asked. “I thought this was the only one like it, I mean, Karmt said it would help—”
          The islander pulled in a huge breath and then slipped into the puddle head first. Kelden watched incredulously as the man’s feet kicked up in the air and slowly pulled him downward. The soft glow of the light grew faint as the islander made his way through the passage.
          “This is insane,” Kelden said to himself. He looked around as if to point out the idiocy of such an act to someone else, but the only other living thing he saw was a small blue crab that was picking at the muddy rocks on the other side of the tunnel. “Well, if I get stuck, then at least you will have a lifetime supply of food,” he told the crab. He stood staring at the puddle for a long while, as if looking at the water would make the passage open wider. If not for the fact that the islander had a cube much like the one he did, he would have turned and climbed out of the tunnel, but he couldn’t turn back now. He had to know the nameless stranger’s secret.
          He knelt down at the edge of the puddle and stuck his hand into the water. He felt around for the opening and shook his head when he finally found it. A shallow chasm, possibly big enough for Kelden’s upper body, stretched about three feet wide.
          “Come on!” The islander’s voice was faint and muffled, but even still Kelden could sense the impatience. The warrior thought of the tide and realized that they would have to exit through this very passage before the waters rose again.
          Kelden nodded to himself. “Okay, it’s now or never,” he said. He took a deep breath and lowered himself down, mimicking every move the islander had made. It didn’t work. Somehow, the angle was wrong and he got stuck before his head and shoulders could push into the chasm. Kelden awkwardly kicked his legs and grasped with his hands to pull himself out. He wiped the water from his face and took in a few steadying breaths. It was a lot harder than it had looked.
          “Hurry up!” the islander shouted.
          “If I die in here, I am going to haunt you until your crazy little head explodes,” Kelden muttered. He took in another breath and then plunged back into the hole. This time, he had aligned himself correctly and he slid into the chasm. He made it far enough that the lip of the rock above tugged at his waistband. He kicked and wormed his way in, inching through and focusing on the soft glow of light in the distance. He had hoped the passage would be short, but as he craned his neck to look behind him, he saw that the glow of the islander’s cube was at least ten feet away from his position. He couldn’t move his limbs very well, but bending mainly at the wrists he was able to drive some momentum. Fortunately, there was a slick layer of algae through the chasm that made the going a bit easier than he had expected. When his legs cleared the outer lip of the chasm, he had to turn his feet outward to fit them inside. Now he could use his knees and hands. The water muffled the scraping of the rock against his clothes, but it also made the chasm feel much smaller.
          It was as if the rock was squeezing down, closing in on Kelden. He slowed at the half way mark, and when a jagged point of stone caught on his shirt, he realized that the chasm was narrowing. Kelden was stuck. The point dug into his chest and he couldn’t move. Trouble was, he couldn’t go backward either. He tried, but his hands and knees couldn’t get any traction on the slick stones. He was pinned. He nearly panicked, squirming and jerking about in an effort to force himself through the passage. In his struggling, a couple of air bubbles slipped out from his mouth. It was subtle at first, but he noticed that the point of stone dug into him a bit less than it had the moment before the bubbles escaped.
          He looked to the glowing cube. It was still four feet away, but Kelden knew what he had to do in order to reach it. He let out half a breath. His chest fell just enough to scrape by the point of stone. The jagged edge cut through his skin and pulled at it. The pain was enough that Kelden opened his mouth and cried out as he gave one last concerted push. The water rushed into his mouth and his lungs took in a bit of the salty, burning liquid. Kelden coughed, but that only brought more water in.
Then a pair of hands grabbed him by the head. Strong fingers curled around his jaw and pulled. The hands then moved to latch onto Kelden’s shoulders. The fingers felt like dull hooks curling up into his armpits, and then there was a sudden burst of movement.
          Kelden broke the surface of the water and landed on the islander. He choked and sputtered, but the islander quickly pushed him to the side and then began rubbing Kelden’s sternum. The action agitated Kelden’s wound, but it also helped him cough up the water. The islander then forced Kelden onto his side and whacked him hard in the back. A second gush of water came out from Kelden’s throat, and then Kelden vomited.
          “I told you it would be a tight fit,” the islander said. “Glad you made it though.”
Kelden coughed and clutched at his throat. He offered a grateful nod to his rescuer, and then struggled to sit up.
          “Come on, no time to waste sitting down,” the islander said. “Nearly drowning will be pleasant compared to what will happen if the tide returns before we get out.”
          Kelden pushed himself up and followed the islander. His feet were a bit sluggish at first, and he nearly lost his balance once, but he forced himself to focus on the cavern ahead. The only light they had to go on now came from the nameless stranger’s cube, but it was enough to illuminate their path. Surprisingly, the cavern on this side of the passage was much larger than on the other side. They walked for several hundred feet, curving left and right with the tunnel, and then they came to a large wall. The walls of the cave were rough and untouched, but there was a single section that had very obviously been carved by someone. The stone was flat, and smooth to the touch. Runes were etched in a pattern arcing over a door made entirely of stone.
          “This is what you wanted to show me?” Kelden asked.
          The stranger nodded. “I cannot open it.” He moved his cube to a square hole in the door and slipped it in. “My cube is the right size, but it does not unlock the seal.”
          Kelden watched intently as lines of violet light burrowed through the stone, lighting miniature cracks and fissures that led to several runes scattered across the door itself. Each rune began to glow, but only for a moment before the light returned to the cube and the magic box slid out from the hole on its own accord.
          “And you think my cube is the answer?” Kelden asked.
          “If Lisei sent you here, along with your cube, then I think it must be worth trying,” the stranger said with a vigorous nod. “Go on, slide it in.”
          Kelden shrugged and took out the cube. It felt cool in his hands, as it always did when he held it. “Do you know what the runes say?” Kelden asked as he approached the square-shaped hole in the door.
          “I do,” the stranger said with a nod. “I have something of a gift with languages. I recognize this one as one of the ancient dialects, older than even Taish, the language of the elves.”
          “What does it say?” Kelden asked.
          “This one here, is one of Nagé’s symbols, do you know of her?”
          Kelden nodded. “Nagé is one of the goddesses that serves Icadion. She collects the worthy dead from the world and helps them transition in the afterlife.”
          “Very good,” the stranger said. “This rune here is for her husband. Though what part in this puzzle belongs to him is a bit of a mystery to me at this point.”
          “And this one?” Kelden said as he pointed to a third rune on the door.”
          The stranger shook his head. “It doesn’t match any of the old gods, or their symbols.” He reached out and gently traced it with his hand. “Moreover, it doesn’t belong to the same dialect that marks the upper part of the doorway, for I can read those words just fine, but this is altogether different.”
          “What do the runes lining the top of the door say?” Kelden asked.
          The stranger smiled. “They say that a man will come who destroys shadows and stands loyal, he alone can open this door.”
          Kelden narrowed his eyes on the stranger. “You think I am that person?”
          The stranger shrugged. “I’m not sure, but a demi-god saw fit to send you here, with your cube. That alone would have been enough to intrigue me, but, the fact that you fought one who impersonated a demi-god, and that even now your desires are to help your queen, I think it could be talking about you, yes.”
          Kelden turned his eyes to his cube and then slid it into the doorway. At first, nothing happened, but then a brilliant wave of blue washed over the entire door. Each of the runes glowed a bright turquoise, and the door began to shake and quiver.
          “I’ve waited years for this!” the stranger shouted as he danced about and clapped his hands. “Years!”
          The door slid inward and then disappeared altogether, as if it had never been there in the first place. The cube hovered in the air, spinning slowly and giving off a faint, blue glow. Through the doorway they could see only darkness, but then a series of torches sprang to life with blue fires that cast a radiant light throughout a large chamber. Kelden retrieved the hovering cube and then started to step through, but the nameless stranger beat him to it, slipping in and shouting as he danced into the chamber.
          “There could be traps,” Kelden cautioned, but the islander didn’t seem to care. He danced about, running from wall to wall, reading from various inscriptions carved in the stone. Then he ran to a large table or altar of some sort and bent low to read aloud as he traced his fingers along the edge.
          “If it is Nagé’s wisdom you seek, first you should find the meek.” The stranger stood up and folded his arms. “Well, now what would that mean?” he said as he turned about and scanned the chamber. “There is no one else on this island.”
          Kelden approached the altar and saw runes similar to those that were carved above the doorway. “Are you sure you understand it correctly?”
          “Of course I’m sure,” the stranger said.
          “But you said you can’t even remember your own name, how can you be certain that you understand this?”
          “Because I am Stormbringer Nedekar! I have studied the riddle of the cubes for the last thirty years, and I will not stop now that I—” the man stopped talking and gasped as he clasped a hand over his mouth.
          Kelden looked around, thinking perhaps the islander had discovered some hidden danger, but there was nothing in the chamber with them. He turned back to the man and moved closer. “Stormbringer Nedekar?” Kelden said.
          The man’s eyes filled with tears. “My name… I remember now.” He seemed to lose his strength then and stumbled toward the altar, barely catching himself with his hands as he let out a moan. “Oh, but you don’t know what I have done.”
          “What’s wrong?” Kelden asked.
          Nedekar hung his head low and moaned once more, as if something very painful was filling his memories. When he finally straightened himself up, he wiped an arm across his eyes and then turned around to sit upon the altar. “Stormbringer is my title, or at least it was. My name is Nedekar. I am from a small island north east of Jibbam.” He looked down and held up his cube. “This artifact was entrusted to me by the very demi-god who sent you to me.”
          “Lisei?” Kelden asked.
          Nedekar nodded. “You see, I was once the head of a special order that follows her.”
          “You’re a priest?” Kelden asked.
          Nedekar shook his head. “More like a warrior-scholar. There is no substantive religious aspect to the order. Lisei doesn’t crave worship as the other demi-gods do. She seeks balance. When things are greatly out of balance, she would give us missions to help restore order.” Nedekar pointed at Kelden and wagged his finger at the man. “That’s why she sent you here. You have the cube.”
          “I have one cube, but it doesn’t do anything the way yours does,” Kelden said.
          Nedekar shook his head. “Bah, you don’t know how to use it, but it has powers, I assure you.”
          “The only power I am interested in is opening the cube to prove that Queen Dalynn is the rightful heir to the empire, so I can put an end to a war and its occupation of my homeland.”
          Nedekar set his cube down on the altar. “It won’t be that easy, I’m afraid.” Nedekar folded his arms. “I am here to pay penance, my stranded warrior friend, and my penance will be serving you in the best way I can.”
          “Serving me?” Kelden asked.
          Nedekar nodded. “You see, I once lost sight of my calling. As Stormbringer, I outranked all the others in the order, except for one. My brother, Agorian, was a Stormbringer as well. Together, we had risen through the ranks because of our devotion to uncovering lost truths and restoring order as Lisei directed. Except, as the years wore on, I started to crave the power that came with my position. When we found this cube, my brother and I argued for weeks. He wanted to set out on a grand quest to solve the riddle of the cube. I wanted to use the cube to solidify my place as the order’s commander. You know how rare it is to find magic in this part of the world.”
          Kelden nodded. “Nearly all wizards and mages were slaughtered in the Mage Wars some five hundred years ago,” he said. “I’m familiar with that part of our history.”
          “Yes well, the cube granted me powers like a mage. Suddenly I found that I had a whole tribe of people on my island calling me their king. I could grant them boons and blessings, turn the devastating hurricanes away with a flick of my wrist, or call the fishes of the sea. Everything was so simple.”
          “Your brother didn’t like being in second place?” Kelden surmised.
          Nedekar shook his head. “No, my brother was fine not sharing the position I held. His problem was that he believed the cubes were not to be trifled with. You see, he was the one who discovered that there were more than one. He was always researching. One day there was a feud between us. He wanted me to give him the cube so he could use it to find the others. I wouldn’t give up my power. So, we fought. Several dozen people in our order died in the struggle. Finally, Agorian made a deal with me that if he ever found another cube, I would have to relinquish this one and acknowledge that they were artifacts created by the old gods. I agreed with him, but…” Nedekar’s words trailed off and he let his head slump downward. “After my brother took a few of those who agreed with him and left the island, I used the cube to move our home. I transported our entire island out into the ocean, far from where we had always been, where no one would find us. Then, I imprisoned any others still remaining who had chosen my brother’s side.”
          Kelden sucked on his teeth and folded his arms. Suddenly he found himself in a very awkward position. Had he heard such a confession back in Kobhir while serving in his official capacity, he could have killed the man right on the spot and brought the head back to Queen Dalynn. At the very least, he could have arrested him. But here, in the bowels of an island that only a demi-god could find, Kelden found himself stirring with compassion. Not enough to comfort Nedekar as the man began to cry quietly, but just enough to stay his hand. Today, he was not acting as an arbiter of the law. Kelden was just a shipwrecked man with a strange puzzle in his hand that glowed and opened magical doorways. The murderer before him, sobbing into his hands, was just an old hermit, sent into exile by a demi-god who had seen some sort of wisdom in allowing the offender to live.
          “How did you end up here?” Kelden asked.
          Nedekar sniffed and wiped his hands across his face. “Lisei came to me. I had never seen her before, but she was far more powerful than anything I had ever imagined. She grabbed me by my neck, and we flew up through the roof of my palace as lightning shattered the building around us. We flew up into the clouds, and then she gave me her sentence.” Nedekar looked to Kelden and shook his head slowly. “You cannot imagine the things she said to me, or the things she showed me then,” he said. “It was terrible.”
          “I have an idea,” Kelden said as he recalled his own encounter with the demi-god.
          “No, you are a virtuous man,” Nedekar said. “She would not have given you the torment she gave to me. I was suspended in the clouds for days, so many that I lost count. I was shown the horrors of what I had done over and over. I felt the pain of those I had killed myself, as well as all of those who had fallen in battle during the feud. It was enough to drive me mad. I tried to jump from the clouds many times, but the sky would not release me from my prison. I must have stayed up there for years. I’m not entirely sure. Then, when Lisei finally heard my pleas for mercy, she came to me once more. But, instead of killing me and letting my soul be dragged down to Hammenfein, she sent me here. She took away my memory, but left me with some of my knowledge about the cube. I have been on this island for nearly eight years, if my accounting is correct.”
          “And she told you to wait?” Kelden asked.
          Nedekar shook his head. “No, she told me to find the answer to the cube, and then I would be set free.” He pointed at Kelden once more. “Now that we have opened the door, we must find the next clue. There has to be something else.”
          Kelden nodded slowly, taking it all in. “So what is the next clue?”
          Nedekar held his hands out to his sides. “There has to be something in this room,” he said. “Surely a door, or a box, or a secret room somewhere. Maybe something that my cube will open now that yours has put us on the path.”
          Kelden took a step away from the altar and his heart leapt up into his throat when he heard a loud splash. He looked down and saw water gathering around his boot. He hadn’t even noticed it coming into the chamber. It made no sound, but the water was everywhere. If that passage had been nearly impossible to get through before, it was far beyond his abilities to cross at this point.                    “Nedekar, can your cube abate the tides?”
          Nedekar looked down and cursed the water. “We have to hurry. Maybe there is another way out!” he shouted.
          The two of them scanned the walls, but there was no sign of additional exits or doors.
          Kelden felt a wave of anger and regret as he realized he was very likely about to finish his life trapped in a watery grave.
          Perhaps Lisei wasn’t the restorer of order as Nedekar claimed. Maybe she sought to hide the cubes from the world. After all, if the cubes were made by the old gods, then they would take power and authority away from any demi-god.
          “I’ve played the fool,” Kelden muttered.



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